Ben Watkiss: “People are still maybe a bit fearful of crossing the line, so they just don’t address it at all.”

Examples of LGBT+ people working in men’s professional football are few and far between.

There are some as you go further down the tiers, with professional referee Ryan Atkin and eighth-tier side Ashford Town’s manager Luke Tuffs just two vocal advocates, but between the 92 Premier League and Football League clubs it is extremely rare to find LGBT+ people in or around the dressing room.

Ben Watkiss is one of those exceptions to the rule, working as a sports scientist and strength and conditioning coach at League One outfit Burton Albion. As the son of a former professional player and manager, football has always been part of Watkiss’ life, and he took up refereeing as a teenager before transitioning into fitness coaching full time after graduating university last summer.

While being a match official inevitably comes with more than it’s fair share of abuse at the best of times, once Watkiss had come out to his friends and family he had no intention of hiding his sexuality in a sporting capacity.

“There were two phases when I came out, the first one was telling friends,” Watkiss recalled.

“I would have been about 17, maybe pushing 18. Then I told family and went more public with it when I was 19 or 20, so I had about four years of reffing when I was openly gay, and that was obviously the first exposure to the football world I had as a gay man.

Ben Watkiss (right) was involved in football as a referee when he came out publicly.

“I think everybody who is gay goes through a period, a phase of refusing to believe it – or refusing to be open about it transparently.

“For me I think the turning point was seeing a couple of other people within refereeing at different levels that I knew were gay, and seeing how other people responded to them. Everyone I knew of responded to them normally, so that paved the way for me. It was only upon seeing how they were accepted that I thought ‘yeah, I can come out here, I can be open and transparent with it’.

“For younger people, or for people who are struggling with their sexuality who know they are gay but worried that they’re not going to be accepted in sport, or think it’s not inclusive, people who are openly gay within the sport are massive. They can pave the way for so many people to come out and be accepted.

“You go into it fearing the worst, thinking that it’s alien to the sport, and it’s alien for a reason because people won’t accept it, but people couldn’t have been any better with me off the back of it.

“Purely from a refereeing side, there was no issue at all. Last year and this year I’ve gone more into the football side of it and being more around clubs, and it has been exactly the same. There have been no problems whatsoever.”

Growing up, Watkiss was conscious that there were no LGBT+ people involved in football that were visible.

Slowly, that is changing. Although the wait for an active player to come out in the UK at a high level goes on, clubs are increasingly showing support for Rainbow Laces thanks in part to more LGBT+ people working at them behind the scenes.

Watkiss was heartened to see multiple Burton Albion players continue wearing Rainbow Laces past the 2020 activation.

Watkiss was adamant when he first started working at Burton that he wanted to be open about his sexuality, and the lack of resistance he has faced seems to have vindicated that decision.

“Since I came out publicly when I was 19 or 20, I always told myself that I am going to be open about it, I’m going to be transparent and not hide it,” he said.

“There was never a case of it being a big sit down with people, and having a big coming out like that, but you obviously go in somewhere new and the first few weeks or months is all about getting to know people. One of the things people always ask is if I have a girlfriend, and for me that would be when I would say ‘no, actually, I’m gay’. People don’t care.

“People always have this belief that footballers might not be inclusive or they might be homophobic, but they forget that footballers are normal people.

“When you talk to them about this kind of thing, it’s no different from talking to your mates or your family. They’re just normal people, so they don’t have an issue with it because the vast majority of people in life don’t.

“I do think that it can be a bit of an elephant in the room, and they don’t know how to address it, and I don’t think that comes from a place of ignorance or non-acceptance, it’s just that it’s something new to them. In football, it’s something that’s rare, so a lot of them probably haven’t been in that position before in football.

“Nobody really cares much, it doesn’t get any adverse reaction or anything like that. In my experience, the perception that football isn’t an accepting environment is massively overhyped.”

Footballers being uneasy or hesitant to talk about LGBT+ issues is one of the key reasons Watkiss feels it is important to be open about his sexuality. He believes that if it can be something that is talked and joked about like any other part of life, it will go a long way towards normalising being LGBT+ in an industry where it is still largely an anomaly.

“I’m open to jokes and to banter about it, so when I’m with my mates I get hammered with it,” Watkiss reasoned.

“I think that’s the way to go about it, if you let people have a laugh with it and not see it as a forbidden subject it normalises it more, and that’s what it’s all about for me.

Watkiss makes an effort to be open about his sexuality around the club, never shying away from joking about being gay.

“It’s not so much like that inside the football club. I do think that there’s still an element where people are still maybe a bit fearful of crossing the line, so they just don’t address it at all. I sometimes bring it up with the lads and have a joke about it and take the mickey out of myself just to normalise it.

“The big thing for me is that I want them to know that if they say the wrong thing and ‘cross that line’, as long as it’s not from a place of hatred and they’re not genuinely being hurtful in their comments, then it will get corrected and we’ll move on.

“I would rather people are prepared to say something that’s maybe not the right thing to say as a mistake. We don’t always say the right thing all the time, but I would rather people say the wrong thing than completely ignore it and avoid the subject. Saying something wrong isn’t always a bad thing in that environment.

“I don’t know of anyone else in a football environment at a professional level that’s in the dressing room with the first team day-to-day, so the players won’t have come across it in that environment before.

“So it is a learning opportunity – you have to let them know what they can say and what’s fair game, and what’s alright for them to take the mick on, but at the same time make sure that they know that for some people there is a line and you’ve just got to be cautious that you don’t go over that line.

“I’m talking hypothetically to be honest, they would do well to say something that offended me. I’m not someone that’s going to be pulling them over for everything that gets said, because I’m just not like that. I promise that whatever they say, I’ve had 10 times worse off my non-football friends. I do joke about it just to show that it’s not off-limits, and I think that if anything they respect you more for that.”

Off-field representation could have an influence on how progress will be judged in many people’s eyes – the number of openly LGBT+ players.

With an increasing visibility of people in and around the game the environment is actively changing for the better, helped along by campaigns like Rainbow Laces and Football v Homophobia.

As far as Watkiss has seen, the football environment is wholly welcoming of the LGBT+ community.

Watkiss thinks change is happening in the stands too – although he appreciates that is the major difference between him being open about who he is and a player being able to do the same.

“I understand that footballers are going to be a lot more cautious and reluctant to come out, because they will have to deal with something that I won’t – the stick from the fans,” Watkiss explained.

“I think it’s inevitable that whoever is the first to come out will get stick from the fans. I don’t necessarily think that’s from a position of hatred, it’s just that fans always want to give opposition players some stick over something.

“Everyone at some point has heard somebody that they are friends with shout something at a football match that in normal, day-to-day life they wouldn’t say. It doesn’t make them a bad person, it’s just that at football it’s seen to be accepted.

“Fans will use whatever they can to try and get one over on someone. They think they’re being clever or funny with their comments, and that will always drive negative comments. When you’re first coming out, that’s a worrying thought.

“For me personally, I would have been exactly the same when I first came out if I had received any negative comments like that. I would have been mortified, embarrassed, uncomfortable, whereas now six or seven years on, it wouldn’t bother me.

“I do think that that’s the biggest worry for a player coming out, but, saying that, I think that society is changing and as a result football is changing. There’s now more likely than ever to be someone a crowd that, should someone shout something abusive and homophobic, would be more likely to call them out now.

“A player is going to come out, it’s coming. I feel like year on year there is more visibility to LGBT+ in football, and if you’re a footballer that’s in the closet surely that does nothing but help and encourage you, and make you believe that it’s not a bad environment to come out into.”

As with any form of significant progress though, it is not a smooth journey to the point where a player feels comfortable enough to come out.

Media speculation is one element of frustration for Watkiss.

The searchlight culture of many newspapers, with headlines claiming to know of footballers in the closet or plastering silhouettes over front pages, are a frustrating part of the fight for real, tangible progress. Watkiss sees those articles as reinforcing a damaging perception of football that contradicts his first-hand, overwhelmingly positive experiences.

“The issue is going to be that the first person that comes out will get so much media attention – we’ve seen that over the last few months,” Watkiss added.

“There has been a few newspapers that have reported on potential gay footballers, and it feels like it’s one of those things that come around every year. I think that’s harmful, because it reminds people how much media attention there will be for whoever the first football that comes out is.

“I think it would be more helpful if instead of just one player coming out and taking all the attention, there was a number of them that comes out at the same time because it would spread the attention between a few and it wouldn’t just be one person that has to deal with it. I imagine that’s something that would be very hard to sort out, but but somebody’s got to be the first one.

“Somebody has to be, whether that’s something that happens in the short term or long term, somebody has got to be the first one. I think that the real change happens when the first person does come out, that then paves the way for others to follow.

“It’s frustrating, because it’s damaging. There are so many people at the moment who are working within football, that are covering football, that do so much positive work to try and make it a much more accepting environment than people sometimes think it is. Whenever the media comes out with stories like that, it almost destroys all that hard work. They portray the image that football isn’t ready for a gay footballer when I don’t think that’s the case at all.

“For me, I just want to talk about my experience, because they have all been positive. I haven’t had any negative experiences, and I want other people to understand that it is a positive thing to be LGBT+ in sport, from my experience there hasn’t been a negative side to it at all.”

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